Why? Because a plant producing plutonium cores for America’s nuclear weapons program was run by corporate executives who failed to protect the workers and the public from what became a $7 billion catastrophic radioactive waste disaster.
The huge settlement awarded nearby homeowners will be added onto the $7 billion already spent to clean up the mess.
From the Denver Post:
Thousands of homeowners who lived downwind of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant and the operators of the controversial facility have settled a lawsuit to the tune of $375 million, more than a quarter century after the legal action was first filed.
The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, brings to an end a 26-year legal saga that began when homeowners living east of Rocky Flats accused the plant’s operators, Rockwell International Corp. and Dow Chemical Co., of devaluing their properties due to plutonium releases from the plant.
The lawsuit, which included as many as 15,000 homeowners in an area largely encompassing neighborhoods surrounding Standley Lake, was first filed in 1990.
In court papers filed Wednesday, the lawsuit was described as “quite possibly the largest docket of any District of Colorado case to date.”
Accompanying the article is this map of the area of contamination.
But don’t expect the companies to foot the bill, at least if they have their own say, reports Seeking Alpha:
The companies said ROK’s [Rockwell’s] share of the settlement was $244M and Dow’s was $131M, but they expect the Energy Department to repay them in full; the Energy Department says it is liable for some claims, but it is not yet clear if it would be the full amount.
So what happened at Rocky Flats?
It’s a story we followed, since we lived within 40 miles of the site for eight years during our youth and often drove by the plant when it was in operation.
Here’s the Wikipedia summary of the contamination problem, and it’s remarkably accurate:
The Rocky Flats Plant, a former U.S. nuclear weapons production facility located about 15 miles northwest of Denver, caused radioactive (primarily plutonium, americium, and uranium) contamination within and outside its boundaries. The contamination primarily resulted from two major plutonium fires in 1957 and 1969 (plutonium is pyrophoric and shavings can spontaneously combust) and from wind-blown plutonium that leaked from barrels of radioactive waste. Much lower concentrations of radioactive isotopes were released throughout the operational life of the plant from 1952 to 1992, from smaller accidents and from normal operational releases of plutonium particles too small to be filtered. Prevailing winds from the plant swept airborne contamination south and east, into populated areas northwest of Denver.
The contamination of the Denver area by plutonium from the fires and other sources was not publicly reported until the 1970s. According to a 1972 study coauthored by Edward Martell, “In the more densely populated areas of Denver, the Pu contamination level in surface soils is several times fallout”, and the plutonium contamination “just east of the Rocky Flats plant ranges up to hundreds of times that from nuclear tests.” As noted by Carl Johnson in Ambio, “Exposures of a large population in the Denver area to plutonium and other radionuclides in the exhaust plumes from the plant date back to 1953.”
Weapons production at the plant was halted after a combined FBI and EPA raid in 1989 and years of protests. The plant has since been shut down, with its buildings demolished and completely removed from the site. The Rocky Flats Plant was declared a Superfund site in 1989 and began its transformation to a cleanup site in February 1992. Removal of the plant and surface contamination was largely completed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Nearly all underground contamination was left in place, and measurable radioactive environmental contamination in and around Rocky Flats will probably persist for thousands of years. The land formerly occupied by the plant is now the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Plans to make this refuge accessible for recreation have been repeatedly delayed due to lack of funding and protested by citizen organizations. The Department of Energy continues to fund monitoring of the site, but private groups and researchers remain concerned about the extent and long-term public health consequences of the contamination. Estimates of the public health risk caused by the contamination vary significantly, with accusations that the United States government is being too secretive and that citizen activists are being alarmist.
For an excellent report on events at the plant and the scale of the cleanup, see this 25 March 2000 Denver Post report by Mark Obmascik.
Among the challenges of the then-ongoing cleanup he noted:
- Finding 1,100 pounds of plutonium that somehow became lost in ductwork, drums and industrial gloveboxes. The amount of missing plutonium at Rocky Flats is enough to build 150 Nagasaki-strength bombs.
- Cleaning 13 “infinity rooms” – places so radioactive that instruments go off the scale when measurements are attempted. One infinity room is so bad that managers welded its door shut in 1972. Another room was stuffed with plutonium-fouled machinery and then entombed in concrete.
- Trucking out dangerous materials. In the next two years, an estimated 16,000 pounds of highgrade plutonium must be moved through metro Denver to South Carolina. On top of that, to meet the planned 2006 cleanup completion date, Rocky Flats must ship out more than three truckloads of radioactive waste each day; the plant now moves only two truckloads a week.
By the time the federal government announced completion of the site cleanup on 13 October 2005, costs had soared to $7 billion.
For more background, here’s a 1996 video by nuclear physicist Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, Senior Scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nuclear Program, prepared during the litigation and posted by YouTube by user r3VOLt23:
Nuclear Weapons Plant: Malpractices at Rocky Flats
Tom Cochran is a nuclear physicist and an expert in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons. He is Director of the Nuclear Program at the National Resources Defense Council and served on boards for the DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was asked to analyze some of the practices at Rocky Flats for the class-action lawsuit, Merilyn Cook et al vs. Rockwell International Corporation and the Dow Chemical Company. (1996)